The 20th season of the WNBA ended Thursday night in Minnesota with the Los Angeles Sparks as champions, winning a decisive Game 5, 77-76, in one of the best games, series, and seasons anybody can remember.
The game itself, which featured dozens of lead changes—including four in the final 23 seconds—served as the greatest possible showcase for the league on a national television stage. This game—this season—was many things, but central to it all was Candace Parker's redemption year.
The Los Angeles Sparks star stood near midcourt, teammates celebrating the improbable win on the home court of the mighty Lynx, and got these words out through emotions thick and swirling around her: "This is for Pat. This is for Pat," she said, referring, of course, to the great Pat Summitt, her coach at Tennessee, who died earlier this year.
The incredible battles between Summitt and Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma brought women's basketball to a larger audience than ever before, and that rivalry lived on through their proxies in the WNBA, with Parker, the greatest remaining active player Summitt ever coached, playing Maya Moore, the best in Auriemma's rich history, down to the final possession. For Parker to come out on top in the very year Summitt died, and months after Auriemma courted controversy by leaving her off the U.S. Olympic team that competed in Rio, provides the kind of neat narrative that life seldom allows for.
But the rich complexity of a season rarely comes down to a single player.It was also the Year of Nneka Ogwumike, the league's MVP, who completed one of the finest seasons in league history (and the most efficient shooting year ever) with a double-double Thursday night. Statistically, she had an argument for Finals MVP, though it went to Parker, whose 28 points and 12 rebounds in Game 5 stood out even among elite performers.
The game also provided fodder for those who want to spend the offseason convinced Minnesota is the better team and rightfully deserves what would have been their fourth WNBA title in six years.
With under a minute left, and the Lynx ahead 73-71, Minnesota played a superb defensive possession, forcing the Sparks into a shot-clock violation when Ogwumike could not get her shot off in time.
The refs ruled it good, and immediately signaled that they'd review the shot, but they allowed play to continue. With 35 seconds left, Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve called her final timeout to provide the officials a chance to get it right.
The problem is that once play continued, they were no longer allowed to review the shot, by league rules. To summarize: this meant that the refs got the initial call wrong—their second missed shot-clock violation in the final 2:13 of play in a championship game—then compounded their error by failing to stop play and review it immediately.
And Reeve, by using her final timeout to justifiably try and get those two points taken off the board, was left unable to advance the ball to halfcourt once Ogwumike made what turned out to be the game-winning shot with 3.1 seconds left.
"Nneka Ogwumike's shot was not good," Reeve said at her postgame press conference. "It was reviewable at the time when she shot it. The referees at that point didn't think anything was wrong. They didn't understand it was the end of the clock. They didn't hear the shot clock.... It's not enough just to apologize and send out a memo that they got something wrong, OK. These players are so invested, and something must be done about the officiating in this league because it is not fair to these great players that we have."
She's not wrong, but even the missed calls feed into what should be the premier rivalry in the WNBA over the next few years, a touchpoint for Sparks–Lynx just as surely as Hue Hollins calling a foul on Scottie Pippen in Game 5 of the 1994 Knicks–Bulls playoff series remains a key talking point between fans of those two teams. The combined winning percentage of these two teams was the best of any two teams in WNBA Finals history, and neither looks to be going anywhere.
And the Michael Jordan figure of the league, Maya Moore, remains firmly in place. She truly was the MVP of the series, with 23 points and 11 assists in Game 5, and a shot with 15.6 seconds to go that put Minnesota ahead. The league has struggled to put a spotlight on Moore, who lacks the off-court hobbies or social media following to match what has been her machine-like conquering of women's basketball at every level.
Both the WNBA's attendance and television ratings climbed significantly in 2016, meaning that more people are getting to see Moore in her prime. Now she even has a foil in place in Los Angeles. At the same time, the league's recently tweaked playoff format means the two Western Conference powers can expect to meet on the game's biggest stage should they continue to play at this level.
And so, a league in desperate need of a trajectory change now has irresistible story lines to pair with its high quality of play. A celebration of 20 years concluded Thursday night with a reasonable belief that the best is yet to come.